By Foldesy, Jody
The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
They say the program has arrived. Perhaps it has.
After decades of breaking bread with college football's mediocrities, Virginia Tech appears to have joined the elite's feast: four consecutive postseason appearances, two straight alliance bowls, four straight years in the Associated Press' final Top 25 and two in the final top 12.
Nonetheless, the Hokies have a revamped lineup for 1997 and face questions as to how good they can be on the field. And with the sordid extracurricular events of the past two seasons lingering - 19 players were arrested on charges ranging from attempted malicious wounding to rape - there's considerable doubt as to how good they can be off the field, too.
To say the least, Tech has endured an offseason of growth.
"This summer was quiet," senior fullback Marcus Parker "We had team meetings almost weekly. Coaches stayed around and helped us out whenever we needed help or advice. [This year] we need to make sure guys don't get out of hand."
The Hokies hope the summer of growth results in an autumn of maturity. On the field, Virginia Tech is coping with the loss of standout senior quarterback Jim Druckenmiller, Big East co-player of the year and a first-round pick in the NFL draft. Off it, they are trying to establish the program as one that keeps people out of trouble.
"I'll say this: When there's no distractions off the field, it's easier to win on the field," said coach Frank Beamer, whose 10th season in Blacksburg concluded with a 41-21 loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. "The fact that we were able to win 10 games last year with all the distractions says a lot about the kind of leaders we had on this football team."
Junior Al Clark, a graduate of Carroll High School in the District, has emerged as Druckenmiller's successor. Clark has proved his game savvy in both spring practices and the Hokies' season-opening 59-19 win over Rutgers last weekend, and his athleticism helps create a versatile attack. Against Rutgers, he rushed seven times for 118 yards and completed seven of 10 passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns.
Parker and junior tailback Ken Oxendine give the Hokies a devastating 1-2 backfield punch. Although he missed two games last season because of a bruised shoulder, Oxendine led the league in scoring and earned conference first-team honors. On defense, the Hokies lost a host of talent, but their depth has ensured an athletic, aggressive unit. Sophomore end John Engelberger appears to be an emerging star.
The Hokies' first three opponents are Big East rivals. Although Rutgers wasn't much of a problem and Temple (Sept. 20) is a similar lightweight, Tech will face a dangerous Syracuse squad at home Sept. 13.
To help combat Tech's off-field problems, new rules were established over the summer to clarify the university's punishment for certain crimes. In addition, the school increased support services and provided mentors to help students understand academic goals.
Players charged with felonies are now suspended immediately and remain off the team until charges are dropped or dismissed. Players convicted of felonies, meanwhile, are kicked off the team and lose their scholarships. Players charged with misdemeanors now are punished by the athletic director, not Beamer.
Just one case is pending in court, according to a university official, and of the two players charged in that incident, one has graduated and the other has left the team. There's no guarantee things will remain quiet, but the Hokies appear to be learning the rules of the game outside the painted lines.
"The coaches and administration are taking steps, but the responsibility falls on the players primarily," Parker said. "If you're doing the wrong things out there, it's your problem. You've got to correct it."
So has the program arrived?
All indications say yes. …